Measured Education
I was talking to my friend the grade school teacher today. She described a program called 'accelerated reading'. Kids are given a choice of books to read. They choose a book, read it, then come back and tell the teacher that they've finished. They then take a test on the computer to see if they really have read the book. Once they pass, they get another book.

I didn't learn to read that way.

I can't think of a better way to take all the joy out of reading.

It is easy to start pointing fingers for this state of affairs. Education in this country costs more and more and seems to produce less results. There are all sorts of solutions, but how do you tell what works?

There are two problems that I see. The first is that we haven't really defined what we want public education to accomplish. The second is that it is hard to measure the value of a good education.

It seems to me, the goal of a public educational system is first to produce better citizens. In a democracy that means people who are able to understand issues, think logically and express their opinions. We want creative solutions to our common problems and we also want to level the playing field so that we take better advantage of the pool of talented children from poorer backgrounds.

We usually tack on a host of other goals. Getting my kids into college is important, of course. Making sure the little dears egos aren't bruised by competition is equally important. Frivolous, self centered or real, very few of these are stated in any kind of public debate; we just go on complaining without knowing where we are going.

Then there is how you measure the value of an education.

Do we measure it by the increased amount of money that you can earn? How do you account for those highly educated people who choose to serve society even if the pay is less? How do you measure artists, the great majority of whom don't earn much, but who contribute so much to our lives?

The defacto measure that we seem to use is performance on standardized tests. Speaking as a person who always found test taking easy, just because I can pass a test doesn't mean that I'm great at doing the job.

We're working our way back to 'accelerated reading' and those tests. To improve something you have to know what you are improving, you have to measure it. To measure the effectiveness of education we use standardized tests. The result is that we start teaching to the test.

Test scores improve, but that doesn't sound like a good way to encourage creativity or even logical thinking. I just finished a project management certification. The earned value formulas were easy for me to memorize; for one thing they just made sense. My other classmates learned a little jingle to reproduce the formulas. They know the formulas, but do they understand them?

My friend is frustrated by teaching to the test. I told her that I'd learned lots of things that weren't on tests, including how to annoy the teacher.

She got my joke, but she surprised me by saying it was also important knowledge

Pretty hard to test that though.